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You and Me (1938)
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by Jay Seaver

"Crime and romance making better partners than usual."
4 stars

The title of "You and Me" was likely bestowed upon this film with no small about of playfulness; a couple buying tickets to see this odd assembly of romance and crime in 1938 might joke about Paramount pointedly trying to make a movie for both of them. It comes together much better than one might expect for that, as it turns out, and has matured into the sort of second-tier vintage film that may not be essential, but is certainly entertaining and interesting.

Then, as now, folks who had been to jail had a difficult time finding work after being released, so it's notable that department-store owner Jerome Morris (Harry Carey) is willing to hire parolees. One who works in the sporting-goods department, Joe Dennis (George Raft), has kept his nose clean and is now a free man planning to take Morris's recommendation with him to a new life in California, despite gangster Mickey Bain (Barton McLane) trying to recruit him for a job. A celebratory drink with his co-worker Helen (Sylvia Sidney) where he realizes that he likes her as more than a friend changes his plans - they find a justice of the peace, get married, and move into her apartment, wtih Joe getting his old job back. Helen warns him that they have to keep quiet about their marriage at work, because it's against store policy, but the truth is that she is also on parole, and marriage is a violation.

That seems like a bizarre restriction to put on a parolee, both because it leads to goofy moments like Helen's parole officer saying "no falling in love!" as a stern order and because one would think that the justice system would want to encourage that kind of stability even if it doesn't exactly push people toward marriage, but, hey, it's not like we've ironed all the contradictory impulses out of our criminal justice system seventy-five years later. That Helen doesn't tell Joe that she's also on parole early on and thus avoid a whole lot of hassle does occasionally seem to be on shaky ground; for as much as screenwriter Virginia Van Upp makes sure the audience sees that the parolees aren't informed of each others' status and that Joe is a bit of hypocrite about this, the double-standard she's fighting against could be a bit more prominent.

Happily, it's Sylvia Sidney playing that character, and it's a cheery performance that seems a little big at first but is tremendously winning and has plenty of room for her to get more uncertain; Sidney pulls off the character collapsing in on herself extremely well. So does George Raft, actually - the opening scenes are thoroughly charming but may take on a hint of someone overcompensating for what he fears is his true nature later on. It's Raft's performance that best exemplifies the film's shift from romantic comedy to crime as Joe seems to reverse course with equal anger and reluctance.

They're backstopped by Fritz Lang, who shows a surprisingly deft hand with the romantic material before turning to the crime where his mastery is more expected. There's a no-nonsense calm to the heist that grows out of the film's last act, punctuated by moments that seem even more grim even if the ex-cons are still kind of funny (though not like when they seemed out of place in retail earlier). The denouement brings a reluctant smile - it's a kind of joke played so straight that the audience has to take it seriously even if they suspect it wasn't that way in the script - and a sequence of the ex-cons remembering their incarceration with an odd mixture of emotions that is visually striking and inventive enough to feel like it belongs more with Lang's impressionistic Germans silents than his American work.

It's the sort of movie that often falls down in trying to include something for everyone, and there's no denying that some of the broader characters and stretched plot elements make it wobble. Fortunately, Lang is a genuinely great director and never moves far from the central idea of how living honestly for real is more (and harder) than just following the rules, and that makes "You and Me", if not a great movie, then one that is probably overlooked more than it should be in the history of both 1930s romances and film noir.

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originally posted: 10/24/15 11:46:17
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  DVD: 28-Apr-1998



Directed by
  Fritz Lang

Written by
  Virginia Van Upp

  Sylvia Sidney
  George Raft
  Barton MacLane
  Harry Carey
  Vera Gordon

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